If you’ve spent much time listening to jazz guitar virtuosos like George Benson and Tal Farlow, shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen and Tony MacAlpine, or fusion players like Frank Gambale, then you’ve no doubt heard plenty of sweep picking. This efficient technique involves using a plectrum to play a series of single notes on adjacent strings in a consecutive motion, rather than alternating pick strokes, resulting in a fast, fluid sound.
You don’t need to be a pyrotechnical electric player to benefit from having some sweep-picking moves under your belt, as the approach works just as well on the acoustic guitar. In this lesson, I’ll show you the nuts and bolts of sweep picking through a series of exercises all around the fretboard designed to get you comfortable with the technique. Most of these figures might seem more gymnastic than musical, but we’ll close things out in Week Four with a jazzy etude that shows how sweep picking can be used in a fun context.
To get your picking hand accustomed to the sweeping movement, you’ll start the first week using just the open strings. Your goal is to get a feel for picking in the same direction across two or more strings. In Example 1, sweep down across two strings at a time, starting between the sixth and fifth strings and continuing the pattern through the second and first strings. Pick these two notes in one continuous motion, rather than two discrete strokes. Start this exercise slowly at first, and make sure that everything sounds connected. Let your pick land on the second note of each two-string pair. Next try the same thing, but with upstrokes, again starting with the bottom two strings (Example 2).
In Example 3, you’ll do a downward, then upward sweep on each string pair. Try continuing the pattern till you get to strings 2 and 1, then go backwards if you’d like. Examples 4a–4c extend the idea to cover three strings at time. Work on all of these open-string patterns until you get a feel for the sweeping action and can play the examples at a moderately fast clip.
Beginners’ Tip #1
At the end of a sweep, allow your pick to come to rest on an adjacent string.
This week you’ll start using your fretting hand in playing strings across two and three strings up and down the neck. Be sure to fret each of the notes in a single pick stroke in advance. This will help with efficiency and coordination between both hands. In Example 5, you’ll sweep some diatonic thirds within the C major scale (C D E F G A B) between the fifth and fourth strings, all in downstrokes. Continue the pattern up an octave, to the C–E dyad at frets 15 and 14 on strings 5 and 4, and then go back down again for good measure. Also based on the C scale, Example 6 moves across the fretboard. Try this with all downstrokes, as indicated, and then with upstrokes, switching the order of the notes in each pair. For instance, the first note will be the fourth-string E, followed by the third-fret C. By the way, if at this point you find that it feels less natural to play upstroke than downstroke sweeps, take the time to focus just on the former before moving on.
The next few exercises are built around augmented triad (1 3 #5) shapes and require three-note sweeps. Try an assortment of patterns—first downstrokes on strings 6–4 (Example 7a) and upstrokes on 5–3 (Example 7b), and then upstrokes and downstrokes (Example 7c). Incidentally, these patterns, which move up in whole steps, are based on the whole tone scale. (For more on that scale, see my Weekly Workout in the December 2017 issue.) Close out the week by exploring these patterns on other string sets, and in all of these exercises, make sure that you are hearing all of the notes clearly and playing them in time.
Beginners’ Tip #2
When you are sweep picking, your right hand (or left, if that’s your dominant hand) should feel free of tension—as if you’re gliding over the strings.
This week’s exercises kick things up a notch with sweeps between different fretted notes on four adjacent strings. An excellent workout for both hands, especially in terms of coordination, Example 8 travels across the fretboard at frets 5–8. This is a formidable exercise, so don’t feel bad if it takes a while to master it such that it is fully ingrained in your muscle memory. Try transferring the patterns in Ex. 8 to other positions as well—for instance, move everything up one fret at a time until you can’t go any higher on your fretboard. Lastly, for a prettier sound, Examples 9a–9c are based on major-seventh (1 3 5 7) shapes in various sweeping configurations.
Beginners’ Tip #3
Whenever possible, remember to make sure that your fretting fingers are pre-positioned on the strings that you will be sweep picking.
This week’s exercise (Example 10) ties everything together with some sweep picking over a jazz chord progression. In reality, sweep picking is most often used in conjunction with alternate picking (down-up, down-up, etc.), and this figure uses both approaches. I’ve indicated all of the sweeps, and you can use whatever pick strokes feel most natural for the other notes. Note that most of the sweeps are arpeggios, as is typical with this technique. In bar 1, for instance, the notes A, C, and E outline the top four notes of an Fmaj7 chord (F A C E); starting on the “and” of beat one, bar 2, a Gm7 (G Bb D F) is played from highest note to lowest, and so on.
Ex. 10 can be challenging for both hands, so make sure to practice it very slowly at first, one measure or phrase at a time. If the notes in the sweep picks sound blurry or indistinct, try releasing fretting pressure on each note just as you pick it; that should help with crispness and definition. As with the previous figures, practice this one until you can play it at a fairly quick tempo.
Once you’ve successfully completed this lesson, try incorporating sweep picking whenever it feels natural or appropriate, regardless of your preferred style. Any time you are playing fretted notes on adjacent string is a good opportunity to use this technique. But as you hone you sweep-picking skills and develop blazing speed, remember to always use these tools musically and not just for flash.
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Beginners’ Tip #4
If you use roundwounds, sweep perpendicular to the strings. This will prevent an undesirable scratching sound when sweep picking.
Take it to the next level
Here’s a two-octave arpeggio, combining sweep picking with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides, that you can play over an Am7-type chord. In the higher octave, on string 1, it includes the ninth (B) and 11th (D). Once you’ve learned the Amaj7 arpeggio, try transforming it into other chord types—for example, raise the notes C, G, and D a half step for use over an Fmaj7 chord.
Ron Jackson is a New York–based master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and others. ronjacksonmusic.com
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.